The Dark Side of Burning Man

[This article is the second part of a two part series, the first of which is on why Burning Man is Funologically Significant – the upside of the event.]

Burning Man is completely unsustainable.  Even the significant efforts of the Alternative Energy Zone sustainable energy theme camp do very little to mitigate the huge ecological footprint of the camp.  Does this event use more power than a nuclear aircraft carrier (which supports 1/10 the population) ? No, it certainly uses less, but we are an even longer way away from the discussion about a sustainable military.  If sustainability is your personal primary objective, you can bail on this post and this festival here.

The place is dirty with cops.  My last visit to BM in 2009 was ruined by the police busting in and busting people in our camp.  Almost all these charges were dropped in the end, after tremendous hassle.  One of the design constraints of the Transformus regional Burning Man event is that it has to be fewer than 2000 people; that way they can have their own security rather than the police from outside.  The 70,000 plus person event* in the Nevada desert does not have this luxury and correspondingly there are police of all different stripes at the event, busily spying, entrapping and otherwise ruining this event which is not running over anyone else’s rights.  There is this scary acceptance at BM that the police are there and nothing can be done about them.  To me, in this regard Burning Man has given up its political power and said “We need to integrate the police state into our party.”  There are dozens of things either organizers or participants could do to reduce the police presence at the event, and these things are not being done.  The Wikipedia entry on BM gives a very low number of arrests and lists citations in the hundreds, but this does not include the Nevada State Police arrests, a much higher and unreported number. [One commenter on this post says police presence has decreased significantly since my fiasco in 2009, but reports from 2013 seem bleak.] *69K participants according to BM inc and BLM in 2013.

BM is sexist.  Okay, it is much more complex than this.  There are lots of women taking organizing and leading roles in this event, including lots of women doing very serious construction work and getting seen and appreciated for it.  Burning Man is also a liberated zone, where women can go topless should they want to and it is not a very big deal.  And the stereotypical beauty models and the objectification of women’s bodies runs pretty fierce through the camp.  There is a bit too much of a frat party feel to Burning Man for my tastes.  The type of partying which happens at BM does not lead me to believe it has a good consent culture and i have certainly seen a fair amount of presumptuous behavior on the part of burners. 

Burning Man is classist.  The tickets run between $240 and $420 [Scalpers in 2014 are asking between $800 and $1000], plus the location necessitates significant travel, housing and food expenses. Add to this the cost of costumes, art cars and their registration, desert protective gear and so on.  And of course, no one is requiring you to go to this remote expensive event.  But because it is so pricey, the people who go represent not the 1%, but certainly a more affluent class.  Funologically, BM is often contrasted to the Rainbow Gathering, which is also often remote, but has free admission  and a much more generous internal culture in which all kitchens give food to all comers.  Part of the magic of BM is the spirit of generosity of the event; and it has a ways to go to be more inclusive, particularly for less affluent participants.

Burning Man Inc.  Burning Man is a big company which uses lots of volunteers to make money for themselves.  Certainly millions gets turned around into art projects and critical infrastructure.  And BM advances a DIY effort; it is the ultimate crowd sourcing event.  I wonder if BM were more like the Rainbow Gathering, if they would keep sticking with this piece of desert which costs them $1 million/year – there has to be an equivalently wonderful piece of desert (perhaps privately owned) which costs less.    But even more important than the land, there is something slightly problematic for me about this basically anarchist-organized event that has a bunch of paid staff making decisions, some of which are irreversible.  The latest fiasco around this is the problem with getting tickets.  Bureau of Land Management rents out the site and restricts BM to about 70K tickets.  Now that the event is regularly selling out, how to fairly distribute the tickets if hugely problematic.  BM Inc is bad for democracy.

Other articles you might be interested in if you liked this one include:

This blog post continues to be popular, in part because it is posted in this clever blog series on reasons not to go to Burning Man.

More can be found about this anarchist author from the banned wikipedia page found here.

[Edited by Judy Youngquest]

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

47 responses to “The Dark Side of Burning Man”

  1. Jason says :

    Pax, as always a succinct and interesting examination of the culture surrounding Burning Man. Thank you for posting this.

    I’ve found many of these topics questionable as well, especially the massive energy footprint needed/left. But the Man itself is an event of excess. When a massive infrastructure (energy for lights/sound camps, food, water, toilets, organization, etc) is required just to maintain the status quo, it is difficult to see through the glitz to the true spirit of the ‘man, the culture, the gifting, the DIY nature of our art, performances, interactions. Radical self reliance is key, and I feel as though the regionals promote the spirit of that belief.

    That said, BM is also undeniably fun as well, and once you get past all the sparkle ponies, the heavy police presence, and the camp politics.. it can, and is, a transcendent event of the human spirit, where (nearly) everything is permissible within the 10 Principles.

  2. paxus says :

    Dearest Jason:

    I completely agree. And this is the sister post of why BM is important. It can be a transformative event. And can we do it more accessibly and w/ lower impact? I think so


  3. Phil Hart says :

    The Buddha teaches: The first Noble Truth is the existance of suffering. In other words, there is always something to complain about. May you find a place to live without discomfort, or come to understand that you can be happy in a place even if you can make a long list of what is wrong with it.

  4. paxus says :

    Dearest Phil:

    i am confused. The suffering at BM is part of the magic, as described in the section on white outs in this post.

    I think Burning Man is brilliant, one of the most important creations in recent popular culture. And as a good theist should think critically about their god, my job as a funologist it to be clear about this important events failings. Just as i highlight the failings of Twin Oaks in my discussions of it, to insure people see what needs to be worked on and where they can bring their ideas and gifts to the discussion.

    Paxus at Twin Oaks
    17 Early Flowers 2012

  5. GPaul says :

    I think that if you’re going to take as a given that:
    -the community is vast and poorly defined (making the application of democracy tricky)
    -the event is essentially a party
    -it will be held on public land (and specifically this public land)

    I don’t see, from my ignorant vantage point, any glaring errors or omissions on the part of the organizers regarding the infrastructure and structure of the event. I think that both your pro and con posts are spot on and do a good job of summarizing the complexity of this event.

    I think it would be a fascinating experiment to see what would happen to the event if you took out the fundamental ephemerality of it, as you were proposing with Villages in the Sky. How would it be different if the city didn’t come apart every year? If you could build on the past? If a permanent residential community was established?

    • Esteban Cisnez says :

      @GPaul. The ephemerality is what makes it work. People have to go back into the default world, process what just happened and effect change in their communities to make default more enjoyable. The class of people would go down since the ephemeral aspect is what makes going to Burning Man so expensive. If it was a permanent residential community then you would get something like Slab City meets Las Vegas and there is no way it would be sustainable out in that brutal desert. The rich socialites won’t be living there as they need air conditioning, showers and night clubs the other 357 days of the year.

      • paxus says :


        The temporary nature is certainly appropriate for the dessert setting, what Gpaul and i were thinking about is events which are in less hostile environments (like for example some of the regional burns are) which could avoid the constant tear down everything and build it back up again the next year. Slab City meetings Las Vegas sounds a bit horrifying, i must confess.

        Paxus at Twin Oaks
        29 Transformus 2013

      • Esteban Cisnez says :

        @Paxus… we’re doing that in Utah. The Utah regional Burning Man event (Element 11) started a new tradition last year of leaving one effigy behind to be burned the following year. It started because the fire department wouldn’t let us burn a Viking ship last year due to fire risk. It was the first thing to get burned this year and it was epic. It’s nice to have something to play on right away as the camp comes together. The event is held at a private SCUBA dive facility near the Great Salt Lake. The fee to rent the grounds has gone a long way towards laying down gravel for the camp and esplanade roads. Seems to rain hard every year so lots of mud to get stuck in. Also we get to enjoy a covered salt water pool for skinny dipping and showers to wash in. Otherwise the area is very much like BRC with dusty alkaline soil and extreme heat. Weather at night is always nice in July though. We get freak rain storms that make sound camps scramble to protect their gear, but everyone loves to play naked in the rain.

        Also we have a Building Man event, where junk is brought in and transformed into art and infrastructure, like the rain water catchment, composting outhouses, adobe huts, etc… It’s not a regional burn, but the guy who started it was inspired at Burning Man when he started crying at the site of a bunch of Germans (if I remember the story correct) hauling in brand new construction grade lumber in order to build something to burn.

  6. Emie says :

    @GPaul – I would want to live there.

    I always tell people that BM is an ordeal to be survived. Burning Man isn’t utopia. There is a dark side. People die in that desert every year.

    That said, BRC is a lot closer to utopia than your daily life, and common sense and listening to one’s body will do 99% of the work of keeping one alive.

    And out of the ordeal of surviving, out of the resources that must be focused on survival, comes Burning Man’s power and value. In our day to day lives, survival is a given, we take existence for granted so we focus on our “first world problems” and live in a reactionary mode. At Burning Man, nothing is a given, survival cannot be taken for granted, so we live in a creationary mode where each act we take is creating the world we want to live in rather than reacting to the world we live in. Some people use their creative powers to create evil, or indifferent chaos. The dark side is real. Others use their creative powers to create good on a scale we never see in the stifling default world.

    Burning Man is an ordeal, but the ordeal is powerful for those prepared to endure it.

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Emmie:

      Thanks for this thoughtful post. In my piece on why Burning Man is funologically significant i also point out the importance of the ordeal and of losing control in why BM is so important for many and powerfully transformative.

      Paxus at Twin Oaks
      Nagisaki + 67

  7. Tom Scott (@tubbo) says :

    A lot has changed since 2009. As someone who’s last year was 2009 until this past year (2011), I noticed a major decrease in the police presence at Burning Man. In addition, the BLM actually has their own art car, and after talking with them a little bit (they placed our camp right across from BLM’s camp on Rod’s Road/The Wheel), I realized that a lot of them don’t really mind BM or even most of the debauchery that happens here. Because most people who go out to the desert do so in a relatively safe and orderly way.

    The main problem BLM has cited with the growing attendees is traffic. Realize that the two-lane road that goes into BRC is already jam-packed, and they feel that increasing the limit would unfairly burden the surrounding folks who aren’t used to this much traffic or this many people (which is, for many of them, why they are located so remotely from crowds of people 99% of the year). Consider that it may not be the Burning Man organization unfairly pigeonholing the festival into its current state, but rather the entities surrounding it.

    If you have a better idea of where Burning Man should be held by all means I suggest you tell the organization so they can get planning for next year. It would certainly be a breath of fresh air to see Burning Man move somewhere that getting to didn’t involve such a traffic clusterfuck. But you have to take some concessions for the closest thing to utopia out there.. 🙂

  8. paxus says :

    Dearest Tom:

    Well said and well thought. i am happy to hear BM police presence is down. I dont think they can easily consider moving the site, because so much is invested in this particular playa – they are willing to fork over the million a year it takes to hold it.

    Another site would be another festival, and that would be fine as well. Festival ideas can wrestle with each other for participants in a funological ecosystem.

    I will be happy if BM can just get tickets out to make people at this site not feel held out unfairly.

    i appreciate your comments and information

  9. Simon Delaplaya says :

    Yeah yeah yeah…burning man sucks, dont go, yadda yadda yadda….sell me yer ticket.

  10. universitasverum says :

    Personally, I don’t think it’s classist. I made less than $12,000 last year and still managed the highest priced ticket by finding people to transport me and using borrowed and used equipment. It’s about priorities; I made it a priority so no cable, no netflix, no unlimited cell plan, no expensive new costumes. I haven’t scored a ticket yet for this year, but here’s hoping!

  11. paxus says :

    @Universe – we are impressed, especially that you prioritized this event over all these other things. And sadly, you are extraordinary in resourcefulness and commitment. Very few people can pull off what you did at the income you have.

    • universitasverum says :

      I love the royal we — I really did laugh out loud! I don’t not have that stuff just so I can enjoy the Playa… I really think they take a lot of time and/or money that I can spend *experiencing* life. I enjoyed both the articles, btw! Don’t worry ’bout the haters. There is more than one side to Burning Man, not all of it is good, not all of it is bad, and the people who can’t stand to hear anything but the good are not so much different than the ones who can’t do anything but complain. 🙂

  12. Chuck says :

    You make is sound like burning man could stay the wy it was 10 or 20 years ago forever. Nothing stays the same, it’s kinda shocking how in unaccepting of change burners are.
    As for bmorg, your forgetting the millions of dollars they have to spend on insurance policies to protect themselves from getting sued by people getting hurt.
    You say they don’t keep track of arrest and citations by the Nevada State Police, that’s because they are called the highway patrol for a reason. They have no authority in Black Rock City, they are allowed to drive around in the city one day to get a feel of the layout, in case of emergency and they need to facilitate the evacuation of the city. And if you get pulled over by them, it’s because YOU’RE doing something wrong. Speeding, no lights, etc… It’s right they should, do you know how many people have died going and comig from burning man? It’s many more times as many people that have died at all Burning mans since the first one. That road is deadly.
    Burning man stopped being about anarchy the first time they sold ticket. Since this it has become more main stream. But it’s not burning man becoming more like the world, the world is just becoming more like burning man.
    I can’t stand people who bash on burning man because it doesn’t fit their idealized view of what it should be, don’t forget it started out as a party on a beach, there were no ideals behind. The sole intent of burning man is fun and entertainment. Which is why bmorg leaves so much to the participants, they provide the sand box, you build the castle. Any mind changing experience comes from finally having the chance to see what they can do, that is the biggest gift of Burning Man, self-reliance. And any self-reliant person wouldn’t bitch soo much. Get over it. If you can’t go, you can’t go. It ain’t the end of the world

  13. paxus says :


    It is interesting the reactions i get to this post. i probably should not have separated the posts about why it is important and the dark side, because read in isolation this sounds like i dont get why this events makes sense and is important.

    Burning Man is a life changing event for a bunch of people. This does not put it beyond improvement and the BM staff themselves think about these things.
    I was glad to hear that the police presence had decreased, but i know that the numbers on Wikipedia at least are under reporting of arrests, because there were more than two dozen people in the Lovelock jail for BM sting operations just when i went to bail out my friends there.

    Entrapment is not the same as a traffic violation “where you are doing something wrong”. Entrapment is when the police are actively involved in creating the crime they are busting you for. Which is why so many of these cases were thrown out by the judge.

    I’ve been involved in festival organizing, i know all about insurance and invisible costs to participants. And BM would be completely impossible without tremendous volunteer efforts which make it happen. And this is not a bad thing, as you say they provide the sand.

    And these critiques of the event are designed as much to think about how we can do BM differently as they are to consider these elements in desiging new events.

    BM is evolving, i want to push it in the right direction. I certainly understand how people who have had amazing experiences on the playa want to defend this important event. I defend it often as well. And it can be made better by these types of discussions, i think.

    Paxus in Cville
    Leap Day 2012

  14. Samsa Bee says :

    There are good points to Bman and bad points. The giving human spirit, motivation and inspiration for many clearly outweighs the negative. If I let the cops and fratty sparkle ponies bother me I would never get to the juicy stuff.
    Getting hassled by the law puts a sour taste in anyones mouth wherever you go.

    • paxus says :

      @Samsa i agree tha tthe positives out weigh the negatives, as i wrote in an earlier post. And where you can ignore them it is great. And the critique is so we can actually attempt to influence the culture, or build new events which dont repeat the same mistakes.

  15. Joe says :

    I like your replies – maybe even more than the original article. Thanks you 🙂

  16. budd says :

    maybe i missed it, but it doesn’t seem any of the respondents to your piece dealt with this truth:
    “And the stereotypical beauty models and the objectification of womens bodies runs pretty fierce thru the camp. There is a bit too much of a frat party feel to Burning Man for my tastes. The type of partying which happens at BM does not lead me to believe it has a good consent culture.”

    As a woman of a certain age – (mommy-like) i am a place for younger women to safely be sad:
    i have, on several occasions, over several years of BM had young women come, talk, mourn, even cry – over moments of awful sexism they’ve just sustained – many concluding they’ll NEVER come to BM again.

    One (i’ll never forget) said she didn’t plan on leaving her tent until her friends were ready to leave BM. Another i’d never met asked if she could spend the evening with her head on my lap as we rode around in a mutant vehicle so guys would quit hassling her. Not much to be proud of.

    i think you are spot on in noting, and being dismayed by the frat house-d-ness of BM.
    it is beyond simple voyeurism, it hurts, and leads to women not feeling safe. Not an advert for freedom.

  17. Carla Fletcher says :

    Any event that enhances societies disrespect of woman, as burning man does, “the objectification of womens bodies runs pretty fierce thru the camp” should be iliminated. How about teaching women to respect themselves and men to respect women. Far more important to people and the human psyche than all this selfish, selfcentered radical self expression that clearly benefits the hetorsexual male and no one else.

    • paxus says :

      While i agree with much of this critique, i would not say that het men are the only people to benefit from BM. There are lots of people who have life transforming positive experiences at this event, despite the down sides. Many of these people are women and many others identify as queer.

      • Carla Fletcher says :

        I have often heard that about BM; which, I agree is a good thing. It would sure be nice if we could create a place for people to have those transforming positive experiences without having the degredation of the female population or any part of the population happening at the same time. Maybe I should go to BM and have my radical selfexpression be about encouraging the respect of women and women respecting themselves. As much as BM is suppose to be about the radical self expression, I don’t think that form of self expression would be accepted there; I would probably be “run-out-of-town” – going against the whole concept of radical selfexpression. You seem like a reasonable and intellegent person, what do you think would happen if I did that at BM?

  18. paxus says :


    It is quite hard to explain just how BM works to someone who has never been there, and i would encourage you to go. But the self expression part applies to you as well. You can get lots of support bringing clever self expression to BM, even if it is critical of the event or aspects of its culture.

    And it will land with some piece of the population and that might be gratifying for you and them. And the more clever you are, the more memetic (if you will) your self expression is the more likely the overall experience will work form you.

    BM is dirty with feminists. We are not closing colleges because there is sexist fraternities. And while the denigration of women is a big structural problem with the event. i still think it is powerfully personally transformative often in a radicalizing and feminizing process.

    Paxus in San Franscisco
    26 Animals in HEat 2012

    • Carla Fletcher says :

      Thanks! I guess am a bit bitter about the whole thing as my boyfriend bought me a ticket for this year, promised to take me, I was all set, googles, mask, bike etc. Then, at the last minute (a few days ahead) he sold my ticket and said he was going alone because he wouldn’t have fun with me there. I would have gone alone but could not come up with the money for a ticket in that short of notice 😦 Was very sad and hurt so I am kinda taking it out on the event itself). All I could think was he wanted to be able to oogle at and trip over his d**k looking at all the naked and have naked young woman (and what ever else might be offered to him in that way). I hope to go next year with some friends.

  19. barb says :

    I hear ya Carla, My now ex went without me. I was completely fine with it and wished him well as he left. I did not realize all of the elements of the festival. We had a good relationship and when he came back turned into a completely different person, and not a very nice one. From what I have heard some first timers have a hard time reintegrating back into “normal” life…which I think is kind of b.s. Are you of such a weak mind that you can’t balance the two? Hello, seek some therapy. I am all for positive life changing experiences, you can have them at any given moment on any day. What you choose to do with them is up to you. And I’m sure I’ll get a “but you don’t understand, if you have never been”…The ex chose a life without me (fine), but I can assure you I am a kind hearted person and it just sucks he didn’t trust me enough or give me enough credit to understand his experience and it certainly should not have been held against me because I did not go. I think he believes I can no longer fit into his life since I was not there… I am not opposed to the festival but, I am probably better off without a person like this anyway.

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Barb and Carla:

      Burning Man changes peoples lives and often there is a shock on re-entry. It is also a place where people decide to change their lives and sometimes people in their old lives get hurt or run over by this. On balance i think BM improves peoples
      lives and certainly it brings out the dark or selfish side in some people.

      Barb – i agree with you that your ex is a fool for thinking you cant understand him if you were not there. This sounds like a cheap excuse to me. And i think you are both better off, despite the pain this transition has caused.

      Paxus in Rome
      16 Falling Leaves 2012

    • Carla Fletcher says :

      Hey Barb – sorry to hear that. i guess the advantage, if you could call it that, that I have is the (ex) bf really, really missed me and regretted not taking me. he just doesn’t get that i no longer have any trust in him. he doesn’t get that the lack of trust is not about whether or not he slept with someone (in his case doubtful that he did as he is the most disease-a-phobic person I have ever met) but about trusting him with my heart and emotions and trusting him as someone I can depend on. maybe you and I should go together next year!

  20. Charles Shaw says :

    You forgot about the rape epidemic, the vicious collusion with police by the BMorg to prosecute certain offenders like Paul Addis, who was imprisoned for 5 years under Patriot Act “terrorism” statutes and when released from prison committed suicide because of the vicious slander circulated by the BMorg (meanwhile, in the same breath, they are claiming to defend Burners), the exclusive Billionaires camp, etc. Also, there are at least 12 law enforcement agencies present including 5 counties of locals and sheriffs, the State, BLM, FBI, DEA, ATF, Homeland Security/TSA, and then the fricken CIA and DIA.

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